Lately, floods have swept all over the world, from north to south and east to west. There is nothing we can do except pray. This is a loud call for all the amphibian species who can swim to immediately turn themselves in to the maritime stations of the Armed Forces. We need the amphibians to give us a helping hand. IN our unity lies power.
Are we on land? Under the sea? Emerging from underwater? Or perhaps trying to descend into the depths of the sea? Is the land no longer good for breathing, perhaps for living? Will the sea become our only hope for living?
Abl Ma Ansa (Before I forget, 2018) roams between land and sea. It begins with the journey of oceanographer Dr. Sharaf Fakhr al-Behar (Dr. Pride of the Seas), who has a plan to save the world, which involves calling upon his amphibious collaborators to reunite the “secret amphibians society” to save us from an earth that is unbreathable. To reunite the secret society, however, Dr. Sharaf must retrieve his forgotten memory of the long lost Captain. As a human who learned to breathe underwater, the Captain holds the secret to save humanity and, only if Dr. Sharaf brings the Captain back, will he be able to shield us from extinction.
“Most people think that the Captain has died, but in fact he was taken by the amphibians and was preserved by them underwater,” we are told by Dr. Sharaf.
Is it a dystopian fairytale? Or is it a work of science fiction? What is it about the genre that the director uses that loosens up certain conventions of realism, while ushering in notions of memory, loss and death? And what ideas and possibilities does the film open up for us, the viewers, as we are asked to imagine life under the sea?
Screened at the Berlinale film festival as part of the 2018 Forum Expanded edition, Before I forget is summarized as a “science fiction story set in an indistinct coastal region.” Indeed, Mariam Mekiwi’s directorial choices adhere to a number of science fiction conventions, from the film’s broader cinematography to the ways in which it estranges and suspends its viewers. But the genre of science fiction recalls films fraught with ideological conflicts against Russia, which more often than not, are set in outer space. Rather, Before I forget is an experimental form that plays on our notion of genre, alternating between long scenes reminiscent of old Westerns, afro-futurism, fantasy and science fiction.
On his quest to reunite the secret society of amphibians, Dr. Sharaf encounters a number of key characters: an amphibian woman looking for her mother, a disciple of the Captain who once cut off internet cables as a subversive act in support of her mentor, and two women in a ward who have lost their memory, either of whom could be the mother of the amphibious woman. Mekiwi, through Dr. Sharaf, draws us into this fictional world’s mode of existence, while simultaneously taking us on our own speculative journeys into issues as far ranging as environmental apocalypse, the anxiety and burden of memory and the pain and numbness of loss and death.
Each character in this fictional world grapples with a problem related to their memory: “I lost my memory,” “I have no memory of my mother,” “I had my memory stolen,” “My memory leads me to live underwater.” Somehow, their struggles with memory, alongside the omnipresent sea, help deterritorialize any sense of boundaries, configuring lines of mobility and escape instead.
The amphibian woman emerges from underwater and exclaims that she is ready to work with Dr. Sharaf, and find who her mother is. We are told about another amphibious character, Yasser Shark of the Seas, who has elected to stay under the sea as he wishes to escape the land. Meanwhile, Dr. Sharaf tells us, “My main concern is to save the world!” The characters’ disparate modes of existence give the impression of a ritualistic process of going through events and acts. In a conversation with Mekiwi as I was writing this review, the director spoke to me of the importance of ritual in the film. “There is something about the notion of ritual that was very important for me [to illustrate],” she says.“Specifically, I wanted to show how rituals can be acts without divinity around them, where different rituals—like saving the world, or bidding someone farewell, or the act of revolutionary activism—are performed mechanically.”
Mekiwi employs several techniques to create this world: set design, costume and camerawork, along with underlying aural elements such as the creation of an alien language, music and performance. These techniques are integral to helping us as viewers accept the fictional parameters of the story. In other words, the film is an immersive experience where one feels submerged, not just underwater, but in the film’s space, characters, themes and world.
Filmed in a indistinct coastal region and a hospital ward of sorts, the set design is a key element in immersing the viewer into the story on its own terms. The hospital ward, which doubles as Dr. Sharaf’s office, is sprinkled with pastel green, a color often associated with hospitals, which contrasts with the light orange costumes of the two women. The combination of smooth and sleek interiors and costume design in the hospital ward is complemented by images of characters by the sea—whether emerging from underwater, swimming alongside shipwrecks, or conversations taking place among either the amphibious creatures or the humans.
The mise-en-scène, captured through the camera work, largely focuses on the trappings of a universe created. We are transported underwater by camera shots that bring amphibious creatures partially into view before they emerge above water. We glance glacially at shipwrecks as Dr. Sharaf’s voice-over explains that the Captain’s death was just a “smart maneuver” to fool the space agencies who were trying to get rid of him. We are asked to imagine that the Captain, “the first founder of the secret society,” knew early on that “the sea level will rise and that the world will be inundated,” but moreover, that “humans will be able to survive underwater.” The sense of space—physical and psychic—is captured with long shots and beautifully positioned camera angles.
The film’s editing brings us into the world created therein, as if aware that soothing montage would help narrate the troublesome journey our characters embark upon. The soundtrack is not to be overlooked, encompassing everything from the sound effects of the water (robotic, glacial, bubbly and submerged) to the impending sense of apocalypse (electromagnetic wave-sounds, static from the radio amidst inaudible announcements).
The overall experience prompts this question: How is it that I feel genuine emotions about things we know do not exist? Dr. Sharaf’s call to the amphibious creatures to return to the maritime stations of the Armed Forces recall military-industrial complexes reminiscent of contemporary Egypt and the theme of environmental anxiety brings up popular science and our conceptions of knowledge. I would’ve liked to see more of these links between the film’s world and wider cultural debates on industrial discourses of military complexes or popular knowledge, scientific and otherwise.
I am torn between contextualizing the film within its own world on the one hand, and engaging in the more speculative experience of thinking about the allegories it evokes about memory, loss, life and death on the other. I find that in staging then dissecting such a life-world in the film, the abstract ideas posed by the characters contest the standard application of reason to the shaping of human experiences and call for a redesign of our sensations, especially in relation to the natural world and the after-life.